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Opinion Rex Tillerson talks tough on Russia in private Capitol Hill meetings

Secretary of State-designate Rex Tillerson. (Evan Vucci/Associated Press)

Next week, former ExxonMobil chief executive Rex Tillerson will testify for two consecutive days on every foreign policy issue under the sun. If he says the right things about Russia in public — as he has in private — Democrats likely won’t be able to prevent him from becoming the next secretary of state.

Tillerson has been meeting with Republican and Democratic senators this week ahead of his Jan. 11 and 12 Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearings. According to several senators and staffers I talked to who were in the Tillerson meetings, the businessman has gone out of his way to project a clear-eyed and tough message about how he views Vladimir Putin’s Russia, without committing to any specific policies the Trump administration might pursue.

“He said, ‘Look, I understand Putin and Russia is a playground bully and they only respect strength and you need to come from a position of strength to them or you are going to have a lot of problems,’” one senior Senate staffer who was not authorized to speak about the private meeting told me, paraphrasing Tillerson’s remarks. “He was at 30,000 feet and when pushed on sanctions, he wouldn’t fully endorse any particular direction.”

One senator who met with Tillerson, who did not want to publicly comment on the private meeting, told me that Tillerson made clear he understands the overall threat Russia poses to the United States and our allies. But Tillerson punted on all specific questions regarding the dispute between President-elect Donald Trump and the intelligence community over whether the Russian government interfered in the presidential election through hacking and other means.

“I said, ‘Do you see Russia as being involved in our elections? What are you willing to do about it? That’s my test for him,” the senator said. “The first thing he said basically is, “Let me get back to the Trump people.’”

Meanwhile behind the scenes, Republicans and Democrats continue to jostle over the Tillerson nomination. Democrats successfully negotiated a second day of hearings, hoping to conduct more vetting and drive more news about Tillerson ahead of a committee vote. But Republicans led by committee chairman Bob Corker (R-Tenn.) held their ground against Democrat demands that Tillerson provide his tax returns.

Donald Trump is nominating Rex Tillerson for secretary of state. The Post's Anne Gearan explains what he brings to the table and why Congress could reject him (Video: Sarah Parnass/The Washington Post)

Tillerson met with the committee’s ranking Democrat, Sen. Ben Cardin (D-Md.), Wednesday morning and was scheduled to meet with other committee members Wednesday afternoon, including Sen. Cory Gardner (R-Colo.) and Christopher A. Coons (D-Del.). Coons told me before the meeting Wednesday that his vote would depend on what Tillerson says both in public and private on Russia.

“I want to know whether he has a clear-eyed view of Putin’s Russia, their aggression towards the U.S. in hacking our election, their aggression in Crimea and eastern Ukraine, their role in massacres in Aleppo,” Coons said. “If he’s going to be secretary of state, I need to hear clarity from him.”

Gardner told me he wanted similar assurances from Tillerson. “I want to understand how our alliances will be strengthened by the next administration,” he said.

Senators and aides are also poring over reams of documents Tillerson has now provided to the committee. Tillerson didn’t hand over tax returns but did submit a lengthy financial disclosure. On Tuesday, ExxonMobil released its plan for paying out Tillerson’s holdings in the company, which will net him about $180 million to be placed in a blind trust.

Tillerson has also given the committee information on various legal disputes ExxonMobil was engaged in during his time as chief executive, as well as transcripts of speeches he has made to think tanks and industry groups over the years. In those speeches, Tillerson often expressed what Senate aides described as a realist but generally mainstream view of international relations.

For example, in one speech that was handed over to the committee, Tillerson expressed the view that the United States needs to engage with Russia because of its role as a global energy supplier. He also said he believes that the three biggest risks for Europe are terrorism, refugees and economic stagnation.

Trump transition officials declined to speak on the record but did not dispute any of the readouts of Tillerson’s meetings with senators. Transition sources said that Tillerson has been studying a range of issues in advance of his hearing and meeting experts connected to the campaign. He doesn’t have any background, for example, on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and is learning the history and nuances from scratch.

Several senators and aides described Tillerson as humble, cordial and respectful of the fact that he has a steep learning curve ahead of him due to his lack of government experience. Even skeptical Republicans see Tillerson as not the main problem when dealing with the Trump administration on Russia.

“He’s certainly a smart, very competent individual, has run a company very successfully. That’s the impression I came away with,” said Sen. James E. Risch (R-Idaho), a member of the intelligence committee and a Russia hawk who met with Tillerson this week.

Democrats may mount a fight against Tillerson, but it won’t succeed, Risch predicted.

Of the three Senate Republicans who have publicly expressed serious concerns about Tillerson, only one is on the committee: Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.). Rubio hasn’t committed to a vote one way or the other, but the conventional wisdom on Capitol Hill is that he won’t want to be the Republican responsible for a failure by the committee to approve the nomination.

Even if the committee fails to approve Tillerson, Corker can still send the nomination to the Senate floor, where some Democrats, including Sen. Joe Manchin III (D-W.Va.), are sure to break ranks. Therefore, the best skeptical senators can realistically hope for is to get Tillerson on the record regarding as many Russia-related issues as possible.

“He’s going to have to say some tough things and make a couple commitments,” one senior GOP Senate aide who was not authorized to speak about the private meeting said. “And then even the people who don’t want to vote for him will say they got a couple concessions and they will hold their nose and move him through.”

The big question will be what happens after Trump and Tillerson take office. Congress is not going to abandon its drive to investigate and punish Russia for its mischief during the election. If Tillerson’s private statements are authentic, he may be inclined to support them, potentially putting him at odds with the new president.